Fillip 16 — Spring 2012

No More 
than a Backyard 
on a Small Island
Chris Cozier and Claire Tancons

In the following interview from December 2011, artist, critic, curator, and Alice Yard co-founder Christopher Cozier shares his insights about contemporary art practice in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean with curator Claire Tancons. An artist collective recently incorporated as a non-profit organization under the laws of Trinidad and Tobago, Alice Yard formed in 2006 around the backyard of a downtown Port of Spain house, once home to the great-grandmother of Alice Yard co-founder and architect Sean Leonard. At Alice Yard, Leonard and Cozier, along with its other co-founders, writer Nicholas Laughlin and musician Sheldon Holder, run artistic, literary, and music programs and, since building a small exhibition space in 2007, have mounted exhibitions and screened films, growing their network of creative collaborators on site and online along the way. More than an exhibition space, Alice Yard is a platform for creative practice and critical dialogue about the arts that builds upon the various languages and methodologies of its collaborators’ disciplines. Continuing an ongoing discussion between Cozier and Tancons initiated in 2004, this conversation circumscribes the Caribbean as a critical space, addressing issues pertinent to artist-run spaces in general and to the small insular setting of Trinidad and Tobago in particular.

Claire Tancons – When we last spoke in Port of Spain in early 2010, you were considering converting Alice Yard from an art collective into a non-profit arts organization in order to seek funding from international agencies.1 This year, in 2011, the Global Africa Project at the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) presented for the first time in New York a sample of Alice Yard’s creative processes and practices. Given these recent developments and the fact that Alice Yard just celebrated its fifth anniversary, do you feel that institutionalizing tendencies are ineluctably setting in? Do you welcome or wish to avoid these tendencies, and, if so, how?

Christopher Cozier – Alice Yard is very much a response to local institutional deficits. There is no interest and support here for experimental investigative contemporary work. This interest in initiating, hosting, or simply taking seriously projects at their start-up or development stages has now expanded beyond the island to artists living in other places—many with Caribbean connections or interests—who began to ask similar questions and wanted to visit the Yard and engage its processes.

We are a small entity so when funders look at us they have to appreciate our independence, our flexibility, and our openness, all of which allows us to respond to how creative people would like to use the space and collaborate in diverse ways. In this sense, Alice Yard is not just a space, but a relationship. Currently a lot of young music bands rehearse there; we do readings by new and established writers and poets; artists and designers meet there or give talks or develop works together. For us, becoming a not-for-profit is very much about building capacity, our capacity to be able to respond in ways that are commensurate with the questions asked of us. At their simplest, these questions take the form of an artist approaching us with an idea we would like to help develop further. A lot of personal financial resources and time have gone into this process so far. It has been very difficult, but enjoyable when something critically interesting occurs, or someone from our audience and community says, “that was fun,” or “now I understand why you are doing this,” or just “thanks” and “keep going.”

Our presence in Global Caribbean (2009–10) at the Haitian Cultural Center, Miami, and other locations, as well as in the Global Africa Project at MAD in New York is an acknowledgment, but it also challenges our capacity and sense of what we are about. We are still thinking this through along with our networks.

Tancons – That’s interesting because arts funders themselves acknowledge that the non-profit model is in crisis and foundations’ granting capabilities have been steadily downsizing. Speaking for the United States at least, some of the most progressive foundations are encouraging arts organizations and artist collectives to think outside of the box in terms of their funding revenue. There is nothing really new here, but I wonder how you think about sustainably financing Alice Yard outside of the grant-making circuit and using your own resources?

Cozier – We are constantly trying to resolve these questions as we encounter them. Over time we would prefer to be acknowledged and engaged for what we are doing rather than just having credibility simply through being a funded entity. We seek, also, to open a debate about the value of experimental investigative work. We are trying to build a community and a dialogue about imagining in a place such as this. Searching for ways to create meaningfully in what, from our perspective, have become very aggressive, shrewd, utilitarian, and mercantile-driven Caribbean societies is quite a challenge. Compared to other neighbouring Caribbean countries, Trinidad is a relatively wealthy country with oil and natural gas reserves, yet too often the local community and the state are more than happy to leave it to international agencies to fill the gap in funding for arts and culture—all of which I find deeply ironic in a country that once sought to assert its independence from Britain and to find its own voice while being so close to the United States.

Tancons – Can you tell us more about the institutional deficit in the arts in Trinidad? Perhaps you can give us a quick genealogical recap of artist-led initiatives that preceded Alice Yard and tell us how Alice Yard distinguishes itself from them? I am thinking about Contemporary Caribbean Arts (CCA7) (1997–2007) of which you were a founding member and at which I was briefly a curator-in-residence in 2004. Also, could you speak about the more recent citywide art project known as Galvanize from 2006?2

Cozier – Well, on the one hand we have a local art market through which a lot of money flows towards traditional and established art forms such as painting. On the other hand, there is a lack of funding and support for experimental and critical art practices from a younger generation of artists who engage Alice Yard. This younger generation—born in the late 1970s and early 1980s—circulates quite a lot internationally, but remains invisible at home as there are no serious collectors here and only a dysfunctional, underfunded museum, the National Museum of Trinidad and Tobago.

CCA7 was founded in 1997 to address and respond to contemporary art practice in Trinidad. Interesting stuff started to emerge in the field of contemporary art in Trinidad during the early 1980s but remained unsupported and misunderstood until the 1990s when a new generation of artists, including myself, began to show work internationally but continued to be rejected or ignored by the local market and institutions. There is a myth that contemporary art practice in Trinidad began with CCA7 or the people it imported, but it really began with the dialogues of the early 1980s around the work of people like Peter Minshall, Johnny Stollmeyer, Wendy Nanan, and Francesco Cabral, who came before. This collectively created the rationale for CCA7. In 2000, CCA7 became a large facility, with two galleries and thirteen residency studios, and was courted by various funding agencies like the Canada Council for the Arts, the Reed Foundation, the Prince Claus Fund, and networks like the Triangle Art Trust. But there was still very little local support and CCA7 eventually became both politically fraught—with resentment from local art advocates and the government about the centre’s international attention—and financially challenged with very high overhead and scant resources left for actual projects. In some ways, the building became the project, and CCA7 began to fall short of its original purpose to support contemporary art practice in Trinidad. In the long term, CCA7 simply provided an entry point for foreign artists with solid connections to the international art market but did little to develop the visibility, critical understanding, and access to that international art world economy for the local artists in whose name it was developed. The ultimate demise of CCA7 in 2007 provided a lesson in local developmental politics and seriously questioned the ongoing tendency in the postcolonial Caribbean to emulate metropolitan organizational models to gain visibility and legitimacy even when they may not be adaptable to the local context and become non-functional and burdensome. CCA7 may be a good case study in how globalization casts a wide net while failing to seriously alter very old social and economic relations—paradigms that we know all too well in the Caribbean. I am of course referring here to the “other side” of capitalism and modernity otherwise known as colonialism and its ongoing aftershocks.

Galvanize was an attempt, initiated by a younger artist, Mario Lewis, to get back to building our context—i.e., to support our artists and create a dialogue and understanding, locally, of contemporary art practice and also to raise the low expectations international audiences might have of art from the Caribbean, to move ahead with the positive legacy of CCA7 in fostering international exchange among artists, and to take creative practice out of the building and into the public domain. The local art community responded to Lewis’s proposition to work together and seek new places to show our work and win the public back. For example, much of the scheduling of the myriad events and projects that took place in the street and in non-art-spaces, as well as the blogging of critical conversation that drove Galvanize, was assembled and edited by Nicholas Laughlin (writer and Alice Yard co-founder) in collaboration with people like myself and many others. Interestingly, Alice Yard was first used as a space to show a video installation by Jaime Lee Loy, assisted by Marlon Griffith and Nikolai Noel, who went on to form the artistic collective the Collaborative Frog. So, a series of networks and dialogues began to take shape, all based on the lessons learned through our experience with CCA7, which later developed into what would become Alice Yard. In some ways, we have actually returned to where we were before CCA7, as the need to support and promote contemporary art practices at home and abroad remains, but in a more informed and pragmatic way.

Tancons – Gregory Sholette talks about the emergence of the “mockstitution” trend among artists’ collaboratives that organize themselves, mimicking institutions as a response to being rejected by them. Alice Yard is not a mockstitution and yet it also seems to respond to a distinct history of rejection and exclusion both within the national Trinidadian institutional landscape and the framework of the wider global art world. How much has changed in terms of Caribbean artists’ ability to show and share their work with wider audiences since the days of Octavio Zaya’s Caribe Insular: Exclusión, Fragmentación y Paraíso (Museo Extremeño e Iberoamericano de Arte Contemporáneo, Badajoz, Spain, 1998) and the announcement of Caribbean: Crossroads of the World, a collaboration between the Studio Museum in Harlem, El Museo del Barrio in Manhattan, and the Queens Museum of Art, set for 2012?

Cozier – Today, we are simply doing our own thing in terms of producing and presenting work so we cannot be excluded, especially from what is ours or from our own imaginings. Of course, we are responding to our location culturally and historically, but to me there is no “them” out there. I have been “included” in many Caribbean art surveys, but most importantly, my colleagues and I at Alice Yard hope others on the purported periphery of the market-driven art world will join or compliment our efforts in generating their own dialogues, spaces, and processes as well. About the Caribbean surveys in museums outside the region— can say, back then, when they occurred, that many of us got to meet each other in the flesh and also to see each other’s work firsthand. Otherwise this would occur mainly at the Havana Biennial for those of us invited. In general I would like more of these encounters to happen within the region more regularly and in more varied ways.

Tancons – How do you feel, retrospectively, about the questions of periphery and exclusion, which dominated the discourse of the 1980s and 1990s even in the context of what many believed to be a multicultural boom? Do you feel that the myth of multiculturalism has and continues to produce further marginalization? Do you feel that the exclusion of artists living in what was formerly referred to as the periphery has been institutionalized? Can transnational artistic collaborations of the kind established at and through Alice Yard help fill in the blanks perpetuated by dominant, institutionalized, and marginalizing discourses?

Cozier – The politics, or “politricks,” of visibility are myriad. I initially left the United States in the late 1980s to get away from how multiculturalism demanded that I become something already known, fixed, and prepackaged in order to be recognized and included as a marginal underfunded subject and given a little money and attention to operate on the sideline, outside of the mainstream art discourse. I returned to the Caribbean to see if there was another way to be and to function as an artist.

I am a bit horrified to see the same language of multiculturalism, which was constructed by the Euro-American mainstream, arrive here in Trinidad about twenty years later under the government of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who, when elected in 2010, established the Ministry of Culture and Multiculturalism. But the world is funny in the way in which it retools old notions as new. I recall being in Canada on a panel in 2004 where people were talking about “creolization” as if it could be a new and improved multiculturalism. My earlier work dealt with how constructions of nationhood require an ideal, an approved subject or citizen. To me the concept of nation in the anglophone Caribbean context is the smallest moment of our larger history since the alleged “discovery” by Columbus in 1493. Trinidad, for example, became independent from the UK in 1962. Also, the island state is the smallest location on the Caribbean map, physically and mentally—perhaps an immature and very aggressive guarded territory that belongs to politicians and their funders. Our populations continue to travel between these bordered territories, be they other Caribbean islands sharing a similar history, former metropolitan colonial powers in Europe, or other places of migrations like the US and Canada. What we do at Alice Yard is very much a response to these questions of sovereignty through the dialogues we instigate between artists about what they do both regionally and internationally.

Tancons – Institution-building is a form of history-making, which calls for the preservation of institutional archives. What is Alice Yard doing to make sure that the alternative history it is essentially writing is preserved beyond its artists’ documentation of their own material production and actions? Or is this archival preservation less important than the moment and the memory that Alice Yard impresses upon the feelings and experiences of those associated with it?

Cozier – First, perhaps we have to shift our understanding of the concepts of “archive,” “institution,” and also “alternative.” To me, Alice Yard is actually a very traditional space, almost archetypal in Caribbean terms as it is literally a yard—the backyard of a modest 1930s Port of Spain home, a place where generations of the family of the architect Sean Leonard, one of Alice Yard’s co-founders, played as children and a place where people built and took to the streets in their costumes during Carnival. If you are familiar with early regional literature, theatre, the story of Carnival, and the steel band yards, you will know that the yards were communal spaces where people lived, dreamed, and collaborated. So using the yard as a site for our activities is an investment in the future built on traditions from the past. The word “alternative” takes up epistemological references of other places and narratives and conversations that I left behind in art school in the United States. To some degree the yard, as a space, is only an alternative to accessing forgotten aspects of our living past. Artist Charles Campbell has recently written a text on his experience working in Alice Yard in which he talks about “failure” and deficits becoming assets. We are about to publish a small monograph of that essay. So our whole dialogue and process is becoming almost like a collaborative conceptual project in development about creating work in places like this. Through our actions we discover and produce our past and futures simultaneously, both virtually and physically. Nicholas, as a writer and publisher, is, of course, concerned with these questions; so, apart from blogging and posting to Flickr and its networks, he has made an arrangement with the University of the West Indies to catalogue and store our archival material.

Tancons – Don’t you think that the concept of “alternative” applies to Alice Yard in the sense that the kind of practices it enables, although in a genealogical continuum with past practices, are also distinct, at least in terms of the critical outlook they offer? Specifically, the notion of “alternative history” is a critique of hegemonic histories and discourses that erase or fail to account for what does not fit within its agenda of maintaining political power or status quo.

Cozier – Maybe, but I am always looking for options. I wanted to distance the use of the word “alternative” from the cool, urban, romantic languages I left behind in New York in the 1980s. I do not want to construct a historical allegory of sorts, as if we want to have “alternative” as a brand, too.

Tancons – You speak of both Alice Yard and the Caribbean in a larger sense as a “critical space.” You and your collaborators see yourselves as elaborating a distinct creative genealogy for the region’s discursive and exhibition practices in the tradition of the yard space where Trinidadians grew up honing their creative skills, playing ball as children, batting and bowling as cricketers, crafting verses as calypsonians, and building costumes as masmen (carnival costume builders). Presumably, this familiar space should be inviting to the wider public outside of the artistic community. Yet, in my admittedly rather infrequent experience, I found that those who were in attendance at Alice Yard’s events and projects were for the most part creative practitioners from the arts, architecture, design, and literature. It thus seems that for all its familiarity and grounding in a local genealogy of creative practices, Alice Yard remains a threatening space to many, as if the apparatus of criticality inherent in “contemporary art” poses particular challenges of inclusion and exclusion. The adjacent creative field of Carnival was once a critical space in which a dialogue about art and politics emerged in the popular debate. And yet, masmen, even from the Callaloo Company (the carnival production company of Peter Minshall), are wary of crossing the threshold that separates contemporary art and Carnival as if the bridges built between the two by Peter Minshall in the 1980s have crumbled. Is Alice Yard first and foremost, by artists and for artists, strictly defined as “contemporary”?

Cozier – Alice Yard has at least two events a month, attracting very different groups—not everything is publicized on the blog. Sometimes people just use the space to meet and talk privately every other day or so. It has a very diverse following, including musicians, writers, designers, and a few artists. “Adjacent” is an interesting word in considering the relationship between Carnival and contemporary art. Rudolph “Murphy” Winters, a master carnival costume builder from the Callaloo Company, built my Made in China box (2009), in fact. There are some assumptions being articulated here about “community” and “public” as relates to Carnival. The era of Carnival as community-driven that is so romanticized has long passed. The Callaloo Company is basically a workshop with a community built on common skills and labour relations. It began in the mid 1980s with a committee of investors to support the interests of one artist, Peter Minshall, up until the early 2000s. Even Carnival, especially now, is removed from the public and is controlled by new investor groups and cultural ministries, not by grassroots community groups. Also, “the public,” in the domain of popular expression, does what it wants over time: you cannot force it to participate in either a carnival band or a contemporary art event, unlike “the audience,” which you can build around similar interests. Carnival is not only about art, it’s first and foremost about competing social groups and their visibility. In this sense we must never confuse “audience” with “public,” and this critical difference whose significance extends beyond the context of Alice Yard is certainly not just relevant to Trinidad. So, yes, we aspire to have a wider dialogue, but our audience consists of creative people with similar interests, for the moment. The “critical space” is not a stable geographic location or critical position—it is rather the constantly shifting space in which we are able to have this kind of conversation at a certain point in time. For us, Alice Yard is providing that time and space—for now.

Tancons – I follow the line you’re drawing between public and audience, but I am more concerned with demystifying assumptions regarding what constitutes “the general public” or “an audience” in the first decade of the twenty-first century in Trinidad and Tobago—even if there is no “them” as you pointed out earlier. Do you feel that this yearning for a local audience and outreach to a wider public actively informs the work of creative practitioners collaborating with Alice Yard? Or do you feel that the flattening out of difference heralded by the age of globalization makes these distinctions of locality moot?

Cozier – I think we are all simply proceeding—reacting to what artists want to do in and with the space, the actual yard, and also now online. For example, we see ARC Magazine, a Caribbean art journal founded by artists Holly Bynoe and Nadia Huggins, as part of our network. Bynoe and Huggins have very actively and fastidiously taken up the challenge of expanding and driving the information flow online in ways that have directly benefitted us.3 In my writing, I have always argued that the critical space is larger than the geographic island and nation. It is diasporic, meaning it exists in many places at once—New York, London, Amsterdam, Toronto, etc.—wherever Caribbean people have settled and continue to imagine and respond to the world around them.

ARC Magazine as well as the Draconian Switch, an art and design e-magazine produced by designer Richard Rawlins in collaboration with Alice Yard, have significantly affected the space in which we operate as it has expanded the speed of information flow to and from the organization as well as the demographic scale we reach in terms of audience.4 I hear some rumblings about the real and virtual engagement of the Caribbean and about the artwork as well, but I do not think it is fair to compare actual and virtual encounters. New ways of interacting and creating experiences are also happening online, which necessitates an expansion of our understanding of agency. People are now communicating across what were once major divides in both time and space.

Tancons – I agree with you that an understanding of space is not predicated solely upon physically visiting it. Critical engagement across geographic and ideological boundaries is far more important. Recently, we were discussing the impact of the exhibition Caribbeanists love to hate: Infinite Islands (2007) at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Curator Tumelo Mosaka travelled to many of the countries represented in the show, discovering firsthand local creative practices and discussing them one-on-one with artists, but this engagement didn’t prevent the show from being most problematic in its use of hackneyed anthropological categories, exhibition of works instrumentalized to serve those categories, and the exoticization of regional artistic practices. How much might the advent of ARC Magazine or other boundary-breaking platforms such as the Draconian Switch help do away with such geographically contingent categorizations?

Cozier – Well, the “SX Space,” which I initiated for the Web site of Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, was my initial attempt at addressing these divides.5 It may just be a generational thing. I am older and slower than the new players and more concerned with following critical ideas and paths that interest me personally than with promoting new art trends. ARC is a glossy art magazine that is about publicity and building a brand—they made a big market-investment, as well as perhaps an investment in volume and speed, which is of course important to their 
survival in terms of expansion and positioning, 
all of which is good. I wish I had had a vehicle like ARC or even my current Internet networks when I first came back to the Caribbean at the end of the 1980s.

I have never been particularly interested in the arguments around Infinite Island. The show, for all its stated failings, made the region and a few of us a little more visible even though it was compromised in other ways. I have always been surprised by the force with which people chose to go after Mosaka rather than Holland Cotter, whose review in the New York Times showed even more problematic assumptions about art and artists in the Caribbean. Cotter, even if baited by some of the conventional thematic categorizations of the show, offloaded some astonishing judgments. His review of the show brought to light the assumption that a Caribbean exhibition is about identity display and the idea that the Euro-American construction of blackness was a set standard. He even suggested that getting a green card was more important to Caribbean people than showing art in New York.

The long-term impact of Infinite Island will be determined by the degree to which the institutions who receive funding for the next survey respect our work and the context in which it functions and will be willing to collaborate with us in the curatorial process. I have the feeling that Mosaka may have sincerely tried to do this only to find himself embroiled in institutional politics and funding difficulties. Ideally, as an artist I want to get my work and ideas across to a public. I am not interested in the internal politics of the New York art world. I also do want to have curatorial agency to ensure that my work and the work of the artists we support at Alice Yard and throughout the Caribbean receive appropriate presentation and contextualization.

Tancons – Over the last year, you co-curated Paramaribo SPAN (2010) in Suriname at various venues and Wrestling with the Image: Caribbean Interventions (2011) in the United States at the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, DC.6 Recently, you also participated in Dislocating the Studio an artist residency in Johannesburg, South Africa. Is this geography of mobility—the Caribbean, the United States, South Africa—representative of your and Alice Yard’s network? And how do you seek to expand it? In many ways, it is very much a south-south network mediated by the United States and Europe.7 Do you feel that the United States and Europe are mediating south-south relationships, even if indirectly, as a relic of a colonial past, or that they are happening on their own terms? Do you and Alice Yard proceed according to what could be called group affinities, to employ a rather of-the-moment term?

Cozier – As I keep saying: we are simply proceeding. We are trying to build relationships with groups of artists and thinkers who are faced with similar challenges and are seeking creative solutions. We are all talking with Popop Studios in Nassau, Bahamas; Tembe Art Studio in Moengo, Suriname; Projects & Space in Barbados;8 and with ARC Magazine and others outside the Caribbean.

My grandparents and parents lived in a colonial world in which one could do teacher training in Port of Spain and end up teaching in a school in Colombo, Christchurch, or Lagos. This kind of mobility ended in the early 1960s after independence, when Jamaica, Trinidad, and other British colonies became national states and granted their citizens passports, establishing boundaries in what was a previously unbounded colonial territory. Again, the question of mobility and the challenge of establishing exchanges among Caribbean countries divided by geographic and national boundaries brings us back to who is willing to fund these conversations. Unless we can solve these questions ourselves, the problem of the distracting and sadly entertaining conversations about inclusion and exclusion will always linger.

Tancons – The title of Alice Yard’s fifth anniversary project was ACT5: The Performative Moment (2011), for which you featured the work of some of the Caribbean’s most exciting young artists in an exhibition and hosted discussions and performances over a three-month period. As an artist, your practice of drawing, printmaking, and note-taking externalizes itself most when you travel and engage in residencies and exhibitions where you are almost always a co-curator of your own work in collaboration with a curator who invited you to participate. As a curator you are intent on breaking authoritative and hierarchical methodologies inherent in traditional artistic and exhibition-making practices by instigating participatory actions aimed at the audience, which may be a way of circumventing the challenges articulated earlier in our conversation. In this sense, we could think of your work as conceptually if not formally performative, in that it establishes tangible connections between art practitioners and audiences. Can you talk about the performative artistic traditions in the region and the way in which they inform their own curatorship and the curatorship of other visual art forms, specifically as they relate to participatory modes of engagement?

Cozier – Well, in the beginning, I experimented with performance outside of playing mas’ (i.e., participating in Carnival) with my Conversation with Shirt Jac performance in 1991 and in System of Control (1992) where I used a primary-school whip or switch, which later evolved into the slightly theatrical Blue Soap video shown at the 1994 Havana Biennial. My interest in performance came in part out of my thinking about Peter Minshall’s Mancrab (1983) and how objects and actions can function with equal agency.9 I am very interested in the distinction between the public and the private domain, as well as between public and audience. I think that all art that is serious carries a critical, sometimes curatorial objective, which is like a visual or critical DNA. My retreat to drawing or my return to the drawing board has been an investigation of narrative and the time-based action of a line moving between points as well as the way in which the viewer has to become active in making sense of things encountered, the way in which the viewer produces the experience and, by extension, the work itself. Also, for me works on paper imply a speculative or investigative feeling, which is like thought, ephemeral and fleeting.

To my mind, critical dialogues and curatorial purpose can come into being through experiencing the work itself. The work asks the questions or declares the intentions of the artist. The informality of Alice Yard and the openness of the architectural space alter how we encounter visual objects or actions. I see some interesting connections between the documentation of a performative action and the actual performance in real space and time coming out of 4×4: Shot in Kingston (2010), a small survey of digital photography and video by young artists from Kingston. Think of Marlon Griffith’s Runaway/Reaction shot in video by artist Caecilia Tripp as part of SPRING, the art procession you curated for the 7th Gwangju Biennale. This connection between the performative action and its video or photo documentation also came up, albeit in a reverse fashion, with Charles Campbell’s ongoing re-creation of Actor Boy, in which an early post-Emancipation form of masking depicted in a well-known topographic illustration is now documented buying a phone card; Hew Locke’s eccentric and playful heraldic adornments; and of course Ebony Patterson’s recent staged and altered images of dancehall posses, to name a few examples. Through masking and re-creation they are producing or becoming new presences that both obscure and produce identities and ways of being that also entwine the past with the present. Similarly, James Cooper’s temporary sculptures and Ivan Monforte’s performances, which he defines as emotional sculptures, manifest a diversity of ways of understanding the performative. So, within each of these moments there are a range of proposals—manifestos, so to speak—all happening at Alice Yard, in a space that is no more than a backyard on a small island.

Tancons – You mentioned SPRING, the procession project that I curated for the 7th Gwangju Biennale (2008), which linked the resistant ethos of black Atlantic carnivals with South Korea’s democratic history. We were also more recently discussing my essay for e-flux journal, “Occupy Wall Street: Carnival Against Capital? Carnivalesque as Protest Sensibility,” which compares carnivalesque strands in current protest movements with contemporary resistant practices in the New Orleans and Trinidad carnivals. In an older essay, “Curating Carnival? Performance in Contemporary Caribbean Art and the Paradox of Performance Art in Contemporary Art,” I question the Eurocentric notion of performance art.10 Provocatively, I’d like to ask: can Carnival be an antidote to performance art? Isn’t performance art a sort of commercial capitalization of an intangible medium whose immaterial economy is being objectified in order to be sold? If so, given Alice Yard’s position at the critical junction of the visual arts, performance art, and Carnival, how do you navigate such potentially fraught territory?

Cozier – Our conversation about the carnivalesque is taking place at a time in which Carnival has become grand and highly commodified, much like a Hollywood lot in the 1930s. This happened in my lifetime during which artists began to look more at the process rather than focusing on the actual form and festival in order to find their way. I think that it is very fertile to tease out the question of the relationship between Carnival and performance art. A similar debate came up years ago about the differences between Latin American conceptualism and that of the United States and Europe. However, coming from the Caribbean, and the little I know about our colonial past, naming is claiming. Fresh out of art college, I recall once saying that our Cabaret Voltaire was in the 1860s with the Jamette riots (uprisings of the underclass against British rule during Carnival). Then I realized how language and terminology entrap and that we might have nothing to gain from claiming a language that is not our own and applying it to our practices. I think there are certainly claims to be contested—many were made before there was the information flow of the Internet and before there was any need to be more globally aware or discreet—but those were not our claims. What I continue to learn from living in a place like Trinidad before and after an art education in the US is that people here just do things. They are always processing, almost indiscriminatingly, anything they find useful and casually applying their own meaning and value to these actions. It’s another education—one that we often take for granted.

Tancons – It seems to me that we have come full circle. On the one hand we have been advocating for the necessity of acknowledging place and site, and on the other hand, the need to extend ourselves beyond locality, embracing digital technology as a means to achieve boundarylessness. Of course, there are fantasies in both discourses, but how do you see them played out in the contemporary Car­ibbean imaginary in all its global connectedness?

Cozier – We have always been global. We are a mobile transplanted people. We either dream or travel. The Internet is just a new device. Even though we are witnessing its effects, it is still too early to be definitive about what is actually being created. But isn’t this what we always say in the process of becoming?

  1. Alice Yard’s website is at Christopher Cozier’s website, Visual Matters, is at
  2. Described as “a contemporary arts programme based in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago,” Galvanize ran from September 14 to October 26, 2006, and was supported by CCA7. See
  3. ARC Magazine’s website is at
  4. The Draconian Switch’s website is at
  5. The website for Small Axe’s “SX Space” is at
  6. Paramaribo SPAN’s website is at
  7. South-South is the title of an exhibition that was held at the Barnicke Art Gallery of the University of Toronto (2009) to which Cozier contributed a critical essay on the work of fellow Trinidadian artist Marlon Griffith.
  8. Popop Studios International Center for the Visual Arts is an artist residency founded by artist John Cox in Nassau, Bahamas. See The Tembe Art Studio is an artist residency and art centre initiative lead by artist Marcel Pinas in Moengo, Suriname. See Projects & Space was founded by the artist Sheena Rose. It seeks spaces to realize projects throughout Barbados. See
  9. Mancrab is the name of the King’s character and costume in Peter Minshall’s River mas’ band of 1983. A competitive art form, Carnival involves several juried categories, of which the King costume is one. Peter Minshall (born 1941) revolutionized mas’ by bringing a conceptual outlook more commonly associated with the visual arts and a sophistication in costume design learned from his training in theatre at London’s Central Saint Martins in the mid 1960s. Minshall’s work played an important role in shaping the conversation around contemporary art in Trinidad during its heyday in the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s. Although under-recognized in the realm of contemporary art, Minshall’s influence on creative practice in the Caribbean and beyond is enormous. For instance, he was a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in carnival design and kinetics in 1982 and a Prince Claus Fund Award in 2001. Minshall organized the opening ceremonies of three Olympic Games (Salt Lake City, 2002; Atlanta, 1996; Barcelona, 1992) and designed performances for Jean-Michel Jarre’s concert-spectacles in the 1990s (among many other contributions to international theatrical, music, and sporting events), in addition to producing large-scale costumed bands for the annual Trinidad carnival from 1976 to 2006.
  10. Claire Tancons, “Spring,” in The 7th Gwangju Biennale. Annual Report: A Year in Exhibitions, ed. Okwui Enwezor (Gwangju: Gwangju Biennale Foundation, 2008), 334–63,; Claire Tancons, “Occupy Wall Street: Carnival Against Capital? Carnivalesque as Protest Sensibility,” e-flux journal, December 2011,; Claire Tancons, “Curating Carnival? Performance in Contemporary Caribbean Art and the Paradox of Performance Art in Contemporary Art,” in Curating in the Caribbean, eds. David Bailey, Alissandra Cummings, Axel Lapp, and Allison Thompson (Berlin: Green Box, forthcoming).
About the Authors

Christopher Cozier is an artist, writer, and curator living and working in Trinidad. His artwork has been exhibited at the 7th Havana Biennial, the Brooklyn Museum, the Stenersen Museum (Oslo), the Chicago Cultural Center, the Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan: América Latina y el Caribe, the Biennial of Cuenca, Real Art Ways (Hartford), and TATE Liverpool. With architect Sean Leonard, writer and editor Nicholas Laughlin, and musician Sheldon Holder, Cozier co-directs Alice Yard, at once a physical space, a collaborative network, and an ongoing conversation about contemporary art and creativity in the Caribbean.

Claire Tancons is a curator, writer, and researcher whose work focuses on Carnival, public ceremonial culture, and protest movements. She was the associate curator for Prospect.1 and Contemporary Arts Center, both in New Orleans (2007–09), a curator for the 7th Gwangju Biennale (2008), a guest curator for CAPE09 (2009), and is the currently the curatorial director for the Harlem Biennale. She splits her time between New Orleans and New York.

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